EDITOR’S NOTE: In week 10 of our series on the 125th anniversary of the General Electric Co., we look at retired GE Global Research physicist Dale Brown and 10 of his contemporaries from the 1960s and 1980s.
Less than a year after earning his Ph.D in solid-state physics at Purdue University, Dale Brown was already making waves at GE Global Research.
It was June of 1961, and Brown was recruited to the research center in Niskayuna to help GE battle the Japanese in the race to build a better refrigerator. The idea was a thermoelectrical cooling project sure to improve everyone's favorite household appliance. Brown, however, looked at the science and didn't like it.
"GE was in a panic because the Japanese had published a paper claiming they had found a thermoelectrical material that would replace the compressor in a refrigerator," said Brown, a longtime Niskayuna resident. "Well, they were wrong. I looked deeply into it, and then I wrote an article for the lab that proved theoretically and analytically that thermoelectrics were not going to replace compressors in the refrigerator. I told them it wasn't going to work. In a sense, I killed my first job there, but it also established my identity at the lab pretty early."
Thirty-seven years later, in 1997, Brown retired from GE, though he did continue on as a consultant on a part-time basis until 2011. If you're lucky enough to hear him talk about his time at GE Global Research, you'll notice he uses the word "team" quite a bit.
"I was a team leader — in a sense I was my own boss — and we went from one success to another," said Brown. "When I retired in 1997, a friend of mine said that I ran our operation like a family. I took care of them, and we put products into production as a team. That's how a lot of things got done at the research center — as a team."
A GE Coolidge Fellow and winner of the 1990 Electrochemical Electronics Division Award, Brown published two books on semiconductor technology. He was right in the thick of things when GE Global Research began working with MOSFETs (metal-oxide-semiconductor-field-effect-transistors), a simple planar device that can be fabricated on the surface of a silicon wafer.
"A lot of people were talking about silicon MOSFETs, but nobody really understood them," said Brown. "Peter Gray and I uncovered the science required to understand them. Now, a place like GlobalFoundries has thousands of people making computer chips using silicon wafers, which we were a pioneer of back in the 1960s."
In 1988, however, GE stopped producing semiconductor devices.
"Few people remember that many of the inventions and technology that gave us all of our electronic-based products were made in Niskayuna at the research lab," said Brown. "It's been 50 years of progress in my time there. There were so many talented people doing all kinds of stuff and making things that are now being made all over the world."
Brown, who lives in Niskayuna — not too far from GE Global Research — was born in 1931 in Detroit, Michigan.
"My father was a plant manager for Bohn Aluminum, and I knew very early in my life that I wanted to be a scientist," Brown said. "In high school, I liked chemistry, physics and math, and my parents always encouraged me. I went to the University of Michigan and had some very good instructors.
"When I went to Purdue, I knew I wanted to be a physicist, and when I graduated, I didn't look too closely at any other offers. I knew the research center here in Niskayuna was the place to be."
Along with Dale Brown, there have been hundreds of prominent scientists and engineers who made significant contributions to the General Electric story during the second half of the 20th century. Here are 10 of those men — some are retired and others have passed away — who were leaders in their field during the 1960s, '70s and '80s.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1941, Anthony studied physics at the University of Florida and got his doctorate in applied physics from Harvard in 1964. He joined the staff at GE Global Research in 1967.
Anthony, who has earned more than 120 patents, gained a worldwide reputation for his work with the CVD diamond. His research in that area helped GE develop the first synthesized gem diamond to be comprised almost totally of the isotope Carbon-12, a breakthrough with significant commercial applications. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1990, and in 1977 was one of the youngest winners of the Coolidge Fellowship. He is retired and lives in Niskayuna.
Charles P. Bean
A Buffalo native, Bean graduated from the University of Buffalo in 1947 and from the University of Illinois with a doctorate in physics in 1952. Also a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, he worked at GE Global Research from 1951-85 and taught at RPI from 1985 until his death in 1996.
Best known for his theory of superconductivity; the flow of electricity through a material that provides virtually no resistance, Bean's work on superconductivity and magnetism led to his election into the National Academy of Sciences in 1976 and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1977. A longtime Niskayuna resident, Bean was also did research in biophysics at RPI, studying porous membranes and sea urchin sperm.
A native of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Cline attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he went on to get his doctorate in material science in 1965. He was awarded a Coolidge Fellowship in 1979 and headed off to Stanford University to study physics. At GE in 1984, he co-invented the Marching Cubes algorithm for creating three-dimensional polygonal surfaces from medical images.
A few years later, he helped develop MR thermal imaging for computer control of a focused ultrasound beam and worked on parallel MRI cardiac imaging to detect coronary arteries. In his 40-year GE career, he earned more than 175 patents. Cline is retired and lives in Schenectady.
A native of New Haven, Connecticut, Hall was born on Christmas Day in 1919. He got his four-year degree in physics from CalTech in 1942 and started his career at GE during World War II, working on continuous wave magnetrons to jam enemy radar. He went back to CalTech to get his Ph.D in physics in 1948.
Among his many accomplishments, before retiring from GE Global Research in 1987, was his work demonstrating the first semiconductor laser and his invention of a magnetron commonly used in microwave ovens. Hall, who lived in Niskayuna and passed away in 2016, also worked on transistors and rectifiers for power transmission. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1994 and won the Marconi Prize in 1989.
John D. Harnden Jr.
Born in Schenectady in 1928, Harnden studied electrical engineering at Union College before beginning his career in 1950 in Building 37, eventually moving out to the research center in Niskayuna. He led breakthroughs in a number of areas, including the semiconductor field, electric lighting and power conditioning.
Harnden, who retired in 1988 and still lives in Schenectady, developed switches and other power control devices that helped to enhance numerous household appliances. He also helped develop a static electronic photoflash assembly and a disposable flashbulb lamp. In 2001, he was the individual most responsible for the creation of the Edison Tech Center on Broadway in Schenectady, an educational center and museum that tells the broad history of technology in the Capital Region.
James M. Lafferty
Born in Battle Creek, Michigan in 1917, Laffery earned a four-year degree and then his Ph.D in engineering physics at the University of Michigan in 1947. He had started at GE earlier in 1942 as a physicist, working on electron tubes for radar use.
Lafferty served as manager of the Power Electronics Laboratory at the research center and was awarded 67 patents in various fields, including physics, electronics and vacuum technology. He retired in 1981 but remained active, working as a group leader for the People to People's citizen ambassador program, leading delegations of scientists and engineers to Europe, China, Australia and the Soviet Union. Lafferty lived in Niskayuna until his death in 2006 at the age of 89.
William W. Piper
A native of Columbus, Ohio, Piper attended Yale and Columbia University before getting his Ph.D in physics in 1950 at Ohio State University. He got a job at GE and moved to Schenectady later that year to begin a 39-year career at the research center.
In 1977, Piper developed a new phosphor that resulted in the greatest single boost in fluorescent lamp efficiency since the 1950s. Its use enabled the new 35-watt, Watt-Miser II lamp to produce 97 percent as much light as a standard 40-watt fluorescent light, cutting energy costs by as much as 14 percent. A longtime resident of Glenville, Piper, who passed away in 2007, had nine patents in the field of electroluminescence and was a winner of the Dushman Award, given annually in recognition of major achievements in fluorescent lamps.
Known as Red to his friends and colleagues, Redington was a native of Otego in Otsego County. He got a degree in mechanical engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology and went on to get his doctorate in physics from Cornell University in 1951.
A longtime Niskayuna resident, he started at GE in 1951 and retired in 1991 as laboratory manager of the Medical Diagonostic Systems Branch. Redington, who died in 1995, developed a CT X-ray scanner that took just five seconds to complete its job, helping GE become the world leader in CT scanner sales.
He was named Inventor of the Year in 1987 by the Eastern New York Patent Law Association. His work with computed tomography (scanner and MRIs) gave physicians valuable tools for discovering and identifying tumors in patients.
Wesley K. Waldron
Born in Brooklyn in 1923, Waldron was a graduate of Brooklyn Polytechnic University and began working at GE in the early 1950s. A World War II veteran, Waldron originally worked in Building 28 as a test engineer before moving to the research center.
In the 1950s, he spend much of his time at the Schenectady County Airport, working on magnetic amplifier controls for the B-29 before moving back to the research center to work on semiconductor physics. A Glenville resident, Waldron passed away in January.
A Buffalo native, Webster graduated from the University of Buffalo in 1941 and earned his master's degree in physics there in 1944. He worked at the MIT Radiation Lab from 1943-45, developing microwave radar systems small enough to be deployed on blimps and aircraft. The systems he helped develop were also used to detect German U-boats during World War II, allowing safer passage for the fleet of U.S. ships heading to Great Britain.
Following the war, he went to Cornell University where he got his doctorate in physics. He had already started working at GE Global Research in 1951 and stayed there until his retirement in 1990. Webster, who died in February at the age of 97, earned 38 patents.